How an Idaho citizens’ coalition gunned down a dirty power plant — and what it means for the West

 

BOISE, Idaho — In the elegant lobby of Idaho’s capitol, a miner hefts a jackleg drill, like a medieval knight raising a lance at an unseen foe. He’s only a statue, molded of metal, but his spirit inhabits this building. Pro-industry lawmaking has long been the tradition here, benefiting not only mining, but also agriculture and nuclear reactors and everything in between.

One morning in late March, Rick Johnson, head of the Idaho Conservation League, the state’s biggest environmental group, walks past the statue and up the marble staircases that spiral toward the domed, heavenly ceiling. In a high gallery overlooking the Senate chamber, he takes a seat beside three environmental lobbyists. They’ve come to observe what Johnson describes as "the biggest environmental vote of the year."

These environmentalists are experts at jumping into the fray. But on this issue, they have had to work quietly in the background. Today, they wait, professionally composed but showing signs of inner tension, as the senators slog through a pile of routine bills that deal with water disputes and the Alfalfa and Seed Clover Commission. Finally, the senators get to the crucial item: House Bill 791.

The bill challenges a multinational corporation’s desire to build Idaho’s first major coal-fired power plant. Already approved in the House of Representatives, it would stall the proposed plant for two years, and might sink it completely. San Diego-based Sempra Energy has invested millions of dollars in this power-plant scheme; HB 791 could turn that into a waste of money.

Sen. Bob Geddes, the stocky Republican who represents Soda Springs, stands to warn his cohorts that the bill will have "a chilling effect on business coming to Idaho." Normally, Geddes’ argument against the bill would have traction, because his party doesn’t like regulations, and it holds nearly 80 percent of the Legislature’s seats. Indeed, the Republicans’ national leader, President George W. Bush, champions fossil fuels, including coal plants.

Democratic Sen. Clint Stennett, who represents ski resort communities, does the most talking in opposition. "Nothing could change the face of Idaho as significantly as coal-fired power plants," Stennett says, rattling off possible impacts such as pollution, including lethal mercury compounds, along with the squandering of water and an eroded quality of life.

So far, it all seems utterly predictable. But the debate takes an unusual turn: Two Republican senators stand to voice their agreement with Stennett. And when the Senate leader calls for a vote, and the senators stand, one by one, to announce their positions, the anti-coal plant bill wins approval by an overwhelming margin: 30-5.

The environmentalists in the gallery break into low-key grins: They’ve just witnessed the results of a remarkable grassroots uprising.

Battles are raging around the West against questionable energy development, and finally, here in Idaho, the locals have won one. It’s the latest sign that the region is growing up, defying the edicts that come out of corporate boardrooms and Washington, D.C. And it adds to the hope that, even if the West is fated to be an energy colony for the rest of the nation, at least it will be on Westerners’ terms.

To Sempra Energy, a company that racked up $11 billion in revenues on its worldwide operations in 2005, Idaho must have seemed like the perfect date.

Sempra had found a strategic site for a coal plant, on a butte in the Magic Valley, a gentle sweep of land along the rim of the Snake River Canyon, about 120 miles southeast of Boise. The company had no contract to sell power to Idaho customers, who already have plenty of electricity from dams, natural gas plants, a few windmills, and coal plants in every neighboring state. Instead, Sempra proposed a "merchant plant." Such plants are strictly profit-making ventures, selling power to any customers they can reach over interstate transmission lines. The site was conveniently close to lines that could carry the plant’s 600 megawatts around the Northwest, and it was also near a railroad line that could haul in 500 railcars of Wyoming coal per week.

But it was Idaho’s business-friendly environment, and its scanty regulations, that made the state most attractive to Sempra. With current technologies, coal remains the dirtiest method of generating electricity. Idaho was naive about that. As retired Republican legislator Laird Noh said in the days before the vote, "Sempra feels the folks here have fallen off the turnip truck."